Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Tonight's Movie: The Bigamist (1953) at UCLA

The fourth and final film in the quartet of films seen last weekend at UCLA's Ida Lupino tribute was THE BIGAMIST (1953).

THE BIGAMIST was the second half of a double bill with OUTRAGE (1950), which Lupino directed. In the case of THE BIGAMIST, Lupino directed and played one of the leading roles, and did an excellent job in both

Lupino didn't shy away from controversial topics in the films she directed, including the effects of rape in OUTRAGE and an obviously dicey storyline in THE BIGAMIST. Although THE BIGAMIST stars a trio of actors I really love, I kept putting off seeing it as the subject matter seemed inherently sad, with people bound to get hurt. Well, of course they do, but it's really a fine, delicately acted and nuanced movie which is worth seeing. It's further helped by a brisk 80-minute running time which is just right.

Edmond O'Brien stars in the title role as Harrison "Harry" Graham. He and his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine) live in San Francisco; they love one another but their marriage has become a bit too business-oriented, with Eve salving her inability to have children by throwing herself into their deep-freeze business and Harry frequently doing sales trips to Southern California. However, things seem to be on the upswing for the couple, as they've initiated adoption proceedings.

There's just one problem, in that Harry seems unaccountably annoyed by the adoption agency inspector, Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn). The cagey Mr. Jordan follows Harry to Los Angeles; expecting to find Harry staying at a hotel, he's surprised to discover him staying at a small house. Mr. Jordan is about to leave when he's startled by an unexpected sound...well, I'll let viewers discover more about that moment for themselves as it's a great reveal.

Harry's second wife is Phyllis (Lupino), who lives in Los Angeles; he loves both women but is happier with Phyllis. He's been planning to help Eve become happily situated as a mother and then finally break the news to her that he's leaving her for Phyllis, putting an end to his bigamous status. Needless to say, nothing goes as planned.

Harry is surprisingly sympathetic thanks to O'Brien's performance and a good screenplay by producer Collier Young. O'Brien has a unique ability to make a poor schlub making bad choices sympathetic and appealing; he also pulls it off particularly well in 711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950).

In the wrong hands the viewer might be annoyed by every bad decision Harry makes, but as presented in the film it all unfolds so naturally and organically, with Harry genuinely wanting to make two women happy, that it plays out in a much more interesting way than expected. As Mr. Jordan says, in so many words, he may think Harry is all kinds of awful but he also can't help wishing him luck. That about sums it up.

Fontaine and Lupino are both excellent as two very different women; Fontaine is elegant, smart, and confident, if too distant from Harry, but she bubbles with joy at the prospect of bringing a child into their home. Clearly she has love to spare. Lupino's character has been through many more hard knocks in life and has a tough shell covering a sensitive interior, but despite initially holding Harry at bay, she's the one who provides the lonely Harry with the warmth he needs.

In the end, the film almost persuades us that there aren't any bad guys in the story; all three lead characters are good people who made mistakes, though in Harry's case, they were huge (!). When the film was over and I had time to reflect, I was a bit rueful contemplating that the movie had sold me on feeling sorry for Harry, rather than angry at the devastation his actions caused two innocent women, but such is the power of good storytelling.

One of the rather interesting aspects to this film is that the behind-the-scenes relationships on this film were almost as tangled as they are onscreen. Lupino had been married to producer Collier Young from 1948 to 1951; the day after their divorce, she married actor Howard Duff, a union which would last over three decades. Young, meanwhile, had remarried in 1952 -- to the film's other leading lady, Joan Fontaine! Somehow they were all able to collaborate on creating quite a good movie, even including Fontaine's actress mother Lilian, who plays Lupino's landlady.

Kenneth Tobey (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) plays Harry's friend and attorney.

THE BIGAMIST was filmed by George E. Diskant, who did superb work filming ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), in which Lupino starred and also did the uncredited directing of the final scene.

THE BIGAMIST seems to have fallen into the public domain as there are numerous DVD editions available. It can also be streamed on Amazon Prime.

THE BIGAMIST is recommended viewing, along with the rest of the films seen this weekend. The series left me regretting that Lupino didn't direct more than a handful of films.

There is one night left in UCLA's tribute: A highly recommended double bill on April 27th featuring the classic terror film THE HITCH-HIKER (1953), directed by Lupino, paired with the previously referenced ON DANGEROUS GROUND.

September 2019 Update: THE BIGAMIST is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, with extras including a commentary track by historian Kat Ellinger.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Films like this that tell a good story in unflashy fashion of the real problems of ordinary people seem to have completely disappeared from modern film-making, more's the pity. Rarely do I seem to see a film today about characters with whom I can identify, or would want to. (I don't mean I identify with a bigamist though, btw!!!).
These Lupino films are all brave and affecting stories.

1:17 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura, the reason Ida did not either direct or produce more films, with a single exception a dozen years later, The Trouble With Angels (not a personal project) is that her company The Filmmakers went bankrupt.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Glad you enjoyed this film. As you say, you end up feeling sympathy for all three characters.
Having proved herself to be a very good director , the demise of Filmakers should have led to more directing assignments but the studios just didn't use her. At least she continued to use her talents on television.

11:16 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Vienna, put Ida's directorial career in a different perspective. The studios did use her, but on television not on features just as they did with nearly all of the men who had been doing marginally successful lower budget features. And no one turned it down. Something with Lupino to always keep in mind, she walked away from a Fox contract that paid her $150,000.00 a picture, pretty big money for the period. She never got back to that.

6:50 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all for sharing your comments.

Jerry, it would certainly be nice if we could see more short, solid dramas of the type Lupino turned out.

Like Vienna, I think it's a shame that she didn't end up doing more feature work for studios after her company folded. I really been enjoying taking a good look at some of her films back to back.

Barrylane, I wonder why her production company didn't do well enough to survive -- was the subject matter of her films too "different" for that day, perhaps? (That's part of what makes them interesting in 2018...)

Best wishes,

12:20 AM  

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